Philanthrocapitalism, Part II

So you read yesterday that I might be coming around, at least a little, to this idea of the role that philanthropy, at least that which is strategic, focused on solving serious social problems, and embedded in a truly progressive tax code, can play in our quest for social justice.

So you knew that there was a “but”. And here it is. The ironic thing, though, is that some of these very same ‘philanthrocapitalists’ are offering the same cautions, the same caveats, to which I now turn. Maybe there’s hope for me to be a billionaire someday after all. Or not.

I love it that Bono told the authors of Philanthrocapitalism, “as great as some of the philanthropists in your book are, the real change comes from social movements” (p. 12). And it appears that he’s not alone. “A growing number of philanthrocapitalists are realizing that one of the most effective ways to leverage their money to change the world is to use it to shape how political power is exercised” (p. 240). Exactly. And that’s the point about this new emphasis on the new philanthropy that advocates of social justice cannot afford to forget; there is no way that people in poverty, those who have been excluded and marginalized around the world, will ever get what they truly deserve as a voluntary donation from those who have so much. AND, there’s no way that we’ll solve the serious social problems facing our planet (or even just our community) with just a collaboration between people in need and even the most enlightened rich person; we need the resources of our public structures on our side too.

And only movements move those mountains. The kind of movements that a reliance on philanthropy will subvert.

Social work has to acknowledge our own less than pristine history in this area: The Charity Organization Society, part of the heritage of our great profession, worked in Victorian England to keep government out of the business of helping the poor, arguing that such work was best done by philanthropy (and, of course, them). Even today, social workers can be guilty of that attitude–discouraging the kinds of universal approaches that seek to prevent social injustices because they may erode the need for our professional intervention. And we are willing to overlook the unscrupulous business practices of companies that write checks for our fundraisers, play up to the foundations who make us jump through unreasonable hoops, and rationalize spending way more time applying for grants than trying to change the world…because that’s the way that the system works now.

So the part of the discussion about this new philanthropy that excites me the most is that, increasingly, philanthropists and foundations seem to get this, seem to know that they can’t do it alone, and seem willing to invest in trying to seed the kind of social change that can set the stage for real transformation. The Gates Foundation partnered with other donors to build the Ed in ’08 Campaign, an effort to put nationwide education reform at the center of the 2008 presidential campaign. They largely didn’t succeed, but, then, that’s sometimes how agenda setting starts. They’re not backing away from it, though, claiming that advocacy on several issues will be an increasingly critical part of their strategy in the coming years. The Omidyar Network’s (my husband thanks you for eBay, by the way) investment portfolio includes strengthening governments, in the belief that “effective government is crucial to social impact”. It even gave up tax advantages in exchange for the ability to engage in political campaigning to advance its goals. The Skoll Foundation has taken a more indirect route, making movies with a social message to change the public debate.

I’m not worked up about this philanthropic engagement in politics and governmental reform being “an age of plutocracy”. Seriously–isn’t there ample evidence of the far more malicious role that money is playing in our political system today? It probably goes without saying, however, that this does not a movement make.

An effort like DATA comes closer, since its work centers around using popular culture to bring people (mostly Millennials) to the anti-poverty cause. And it had significant impact, winning historic debt cancellation and raising the consciousness of a generation. After all, building a movement requires changing people’s hearts, and it’s indisputable that rock stars have easier initial access there than do social workers or community organizers or even charismatic politicians. They can put things on the agenda just by opening their mouths, and sometimes that’s an opening that can spark something far greater than they.

We still have the make the road by walking. There are no real shortcuts that I’ve ever seen. But if philanthropy is increasingly willing to stock the rest stops along the way, and pack our backpacks with some of the provisions we’ll need, and buy us a really good map, well, then, we just might get there a little more quickly.

Or, what, am I just going soft?

photo credit, wobblycity, via Flickr

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